Moving Beyond the 2 Percent Promise
NATO's member states failed to abide by the solemn promise to spend 2% of their GDP on defense spending. Jumpstarting NATO resolve while understanding economic constraints requires a strategy that advocates pooling and sharing and cooperation among member states.
NATO's adoption of the two percent promise marks its biggest mistake since the end of the Cold War. It compounded problems the Alliance already faced, including differences in threat perception and budgetary constraints. Most dangerously, the two percent promise drove a wedge between the U.S. and Europe. On the eve of the 2016 NATO Summit in Poland, once the headquarters of the old Warsaw Pact enemy, the member states must take the opportunity to reassess the efficacy of the two percent promise and explore new ways to assess resolve and readiness.
At the time it was first proposed in 2006, when two percent was the median level of spending among NATO member states. Instead of advancing, NATO members in Europe slid backwards. Recent training exercises have revealed that Europe's NATO members are unprepared due to shrinking budgets. Just 4 European NATO members (Poland, the UK, Estonia, and Greece) allocate the minimum two percent of GDP for defense. This directly impacts their ability to work alongside US troops as full spectrum partners. European NATO members do not have the capacity for long term military deployments needed in modern day counterterrorism operations.
Firstly, the two percent promise is unnecessarily political. The 2016 US Presidential Election has made NATO a crude soundbite at the hands of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Opponents have leveraged the two percent statistic and bandied it about as a mark of how reliant Europe is on the US. According to research from the Pew Charitable Trust, just 48% of Americans have a favorable view of NATO, and less than 40% of republicans view the Alliance favorably. Coupled with stories about how unprepared European troops are in international military exercises, isolationism has returned to American politics.
Neither side of the Atlantic truly understands what the two percent promise means to the other. Americans, buoyed by years of strong defense spending and burgeoning economic growth, wonder why Europeans don't just "bite the bullet". On the other hand, Europeans struggling under austerity have trouble rationalizing placing military spending above public investment on their list of priorities. The two percent promise makes these issue even more intractable. The Alliance can only grow if it utilizes other measures of military resolve.
Not only is the two percent promise unnecessarily political, it is a poor metric of how capable a nation is to combat military threats. For one thing, it only measures inputs and not the end product of spending. If compliance with the two percent promise means that Europe has 28 different independent Air Forces, that won't make for a safer Europe. Additionally, countries in compliance can hide behind big ticket items; The UK defense budget barely crests above two percent, with a sizeable portion going towards the independent British Nuclear deterrent.
What's an Alliance to do, especially when the stake are so high? Vladimir Putin has ramped up Russian military investment, replacing Soviet tanks with modern drones. ISIS has bases and training camps along the southern Mediterranean. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is licking his lips at the prospect of more Brussels-style attacks against the European homeland originating in unstable states in the Maghreb and Sahel. NATO should expand its tools for collaboration, incentivize collective investment, and provide expanding categories that illustrate military preparedness.
NATO currently creates a detailed ranking of each member state's military spending, broken down by sectoral expenditure. It ranks each country in three tiers according to how well they are meeting the targets. The Department of Defense should push for the public distribution of this information, something only Denmark currently does. In addition to highlighting member weaknesses, it also could help members better address issues of research and investment not clear from the two percent promise. Further detailed clarification of military spending will address true capabilities among NATO members.
European partners need to focus on maximizing the impact of increased military spending to promote greater continental capabilities. To this end, NATO should encourage programs that foster interoperability and a stronger European Alliance. Proposals for a 28 member state European army are not realistic given the current state of the EU. The proposal from Germany to combine its Air Force with that of the Netherlands and the Czech Republic in an effort to eliminate redundancies shows ingenuity and integration. Further collaboration among 2-3 member states in these "islands of collaboration" can maximize the benefit while keeping costs low.
The United States should create an agency that defrays the costs of defense spending increases through lower interest loans to European NATO members. Parameters should include mandating interoperability plans, incentives for pooling and sharing, and maintaining domestic production. These parameters are aimed at achieving U.S. defense policy objectives and incentivizing these loans for European NATO members. Foreign Military Financing through a European Defense is a low cost measure that will pay dividends for transatlantic security.
Moving forward, each member state must restate and buttress commitment to NATO. Addressing the challenge of low military spending among NATO allies is crucial to building a stronger Alliance for both sides of the Atlantic. Strategies that make defense spending more impactful through collaboration can jumpstart military preparedness among NATO in Europe. Most importantly, they move the Alliance away from petty discussions over a two percent promise that does not get the job done.
Jack Heidecker studies German and Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh. He is interested in national security collaboration between the EU and the US.
This article has been submitted for category B "NATO's Biggest Mistake and Lesson Learned" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories C and D.
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